Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game return from a summer break to take in Newhaven v Little Common in the FA Vase 2nd Qualifying Round.

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

It’s been a very odd summer, for numerous reasons. England getting to the World Cup semi final, everyone thinking that Russia is alright, until a couple of day trippers, went and brought reality crashing down around us, the near constant and unrelenting heat, where the UK for about two months straight was hotter than the Balearic Islands and bereavement. The loss of Tom’s Mum was a huge shock, and meant especially this last month, that football has been far, far from our agenda.

P1020249Picking Tom up from home this morning, a beautiful, not a cloud in the sky kind of a morning, it had crossed my mind that it might be a bit soon, it was Tom’s suggestion we went to a game today, but I wondered if maybe we were jumping the gun, as far as getting back on the road was concerned.

With his sunglasses perched on top of his head, snug jean shorts showing his unnaturally hairy legs, he certainly looked like someone who was

Just behind Kieran Trippiers free kick against Croatia, coming a close second in awesome things that happened over the summer, was Tom getting engaged to his beloved sparrow. A wet coastal walk in wellies, was his foil for dropping down on one knee, and asking his other half to be his wife. His impending nuptials therefore, gave us much to talk about as we hit the motorway.

Now this is news to me, but apparently asking your guests to “glamp”, after you tie the knot is a thing, and I’m slightly astonished by Tom’s explanation that yurts and teepee’s, will all be part of his big day. More shocking though are the sums of money he was bandying about, which if I’ve done my sums right equate to about fifteen family holidays to the Greek island of your choice or a high end second hand saloon car.

Although both of us have already admitted to each other, our long summer break means we feel a bit out of sorts, it doesn’t take long until it feels like it was only yesterday we were driving to some unknown corner of the UK. I’m failing to follow the Sat Nav properly, Tom’s gone all quiet because he’s playing a game on his phone, while I do my best to clean up the coffee I’ve just spilt down my front. As annoying as most or if not all of these things are, there is a familiarity about them, and it certainly feels good to be back.

Sussex is not an area of the UK we have been shy in visiting in the past, the tall stone pillars that welcome you to Brighton, are soon whizzing past us and in what feels like no time at all and soon we are only a few miles of narrow tree lined roads, filled with dappled sunlight cast by lush green trees, away from today’s ground.

I can see it, its floodlights and main stand, but I just can’t seem to be able to get close to it. Every turn we take, just takes us further away. I’ve given up on my Sat Nav, her instructions keep taking us back to a place called Bravo One Field Sports, and when I think I’ve cracked it, I end up in a gravel car park, with nowhere else to go than back the way I came.

Mounting the curb and on to the grass verge, thankfully the nearby Saturday morning tennis game don’t really bat an eyelid, I think we’ve found the way in. There is a distinct lack of signage, and no visible turnstiles, so I’ve just adopted a bit of a do as others do attitude, parking under a tree, on the side of what might be insulting to gravel tracks, if I called it that, to the rear of the main stand of Fort Road, home of Newhaven FC (NFC).

The makeshift metal gate is already slightly ajar so I don’t feel too bad squeezing through the gap, if its open, it’s not technically trespassing is it? The wood chip underfoot reminds me of a child’s playground and heading down the side of the stand we finally see the pitch, dugouts, sprinklers and the banks of green seats, that I have been reliably informed were once part of Brighton’s old ground Withdean, that line the edge of the pitch.

Guided by Martin, NFC’s chairman, he leads us to the low ceilinged, dark panelled clubhouse in the bowels of the stand, a marked improvement on the old one, which was a run down green portacabin. One corner is gleaming with silverware filled cabinets, next to which a bobble hat and a clubs shirt have been pinned to a cork board. The shirt yours for £25.00.

IMG_20180915_135211Although quite lean, his tattoos just visible under the sleeves of his red NFC training top, do not be deceived, his handshake is a firm one. He offers us a drink, and hops behind the bar, grabbing Tom a’ “full fat” Coke from the fridge, and pouring my lemonade from a large two litre bottle. My request for ice, results in a child in an adjacent room being bribed with a free Coke to head off over to the Co-Op to get some.

“Don’t think I’m rude” says Martin, who’s constantly on the tips of his toes, never actually standing still, he’s just got “so many things” to do he explains.

I welcome the distraction from the Spurs Vs Liverpool game playing on the small TV at one end of the clubhouse, Spurs are currently a goal behind, when a man in dungarees, points to a small black and white photo on the other side of the room, of the one and only George Best, playing for NFC. I’m aware that Best’s career after leaving United, was varied, but I had no idea he’d played for a small non league club is East Sussex.

The man in the denim overalls chuckles, when I ask how many times Best played for them. It was only the once, in a “charity match” in “1988” he tells me, he points through the doorway to the room the child who was sent on the ice run was in, to a framed white shirt on the wall, that was worn by the Northern Irishman.

Before heading off as he does, Tom whispers to me, he’s concerned, “where is the burger bar?”. His early assessment is that “there isn’t one”, all of which is said in hushed tones. I try and comfort him with the fact I saw a man walking around with a clutch of cutlery, and we both commented on the strong cooking smells wafting around since we arrived, however there is no customary sizzle, smell of cooked onions or scribbled white board menu.

Liverpool’s second goal brings an end to my time in the clubhouse, it’s at least a nice day outside, and I can’t bare to watch Spurs heading towards their second loss on the bounce. Martin as he flits about, tells me the teams manger is a Spurs fan too, and is “not happy” either.

There may be no apparent food for sale, we pass an unmanned BBQ that only adds to Tom’s woe, but there is a programme. More and more clubs are no longer doing a physical copy, instead only offering a digital one and I can’t fill numerous storage boxes with digital ones can I. Seemingly there is less and less desire for them now, but NFC are keeping up the age old tradition.

From the man by the gate, at the foot of the flagpole flying the “matchday flag” as the man in dungarees described it, a flag we are lucky to be seeing after the “broken string” emergency meant he had to do a DIY job on, right next to the row boat, half filled with water under a sign asking for donations for the RNLI station, irony, a father with his daughter on his knee, who has a giant red Minnie mouse red bow in her hair, takes my money and hands over the glossy papered memento.

“Not many grounds you’ll see a ferry pull up” says the man on the gate, the umpteenth person to comment on the Newhaven to Dieppe ferry that docks within a stone’s throw of the ground, since saying we were coming here today.

Eye Of The Tiger pumping from the stack of speakers on the second floor of the main stand does little to lift Toms mood. “I need to try and find some food” he says, with all the anguish of somebody
who’s been shipwrecked. He really is wracked with hardship, “don’t think I’m eating today” he adds before almost pleading with me that if I see any food I “must let him know”.

The eclectic mix of music continues, this time a bit of Good Charlotte accompanies the men pinning down the goal nets and the NFC players who feel like have been out for ages for their warm up. Their opponents Little Common FC (LFC) are nowhere to be seen, prompting Tom to ask me to confirm that it is a “3 o’clock kick off?”

LFC have no excuses in being late, it’s not like they don’t know where Fort Road is. They played here and lost 7 – 0 in the league only a few days ago. In fact the teams have met twice already this season, NFC winning both, “you always get a team you draw in everything” as one person puts it. Maybe they just don’t fancy another mauling. One NFC fan suggests that the 7 – 0 was down to the visitors putting out a team of “reserves” and NFC are not to be drawn into a “false sense of security”. One fan is less generous, say he thinks it should be another “hammering”.

I thought it was the case, but I wasn’t sure, it’s only when Tom points out the NFC player warming up in a neon pink tutu, that I can be sure I’m not hallucinating. Tom seems to think it’s because “it’s his birthday”, an NFC steward overhearing us talking about the unorthodox warm up gear, says its punishment for being “nutmegged”.

IMG_20180915_131826There is a single solitary clap for LFC as they finally appear, having to dodge the sprinklers that are still going, but thankful the MAIDEN with all the bibs drying the sun, that had been on the touch line since we arrived, has recently been moved, so won’t be in their way. The NFC manager heading back to the changing rooms, displays some nifty footwork to avoid getting wet and looks very happy with himself as he passes us, “I timed it right” he says smugly.

I think the music that a club chooses to play, says a lot about them, when Everybody Wants To Rule The World by Tears For Fears comes on, I’m inclined to suggest to Tom that NFC is a great club, not having even seen a ball be kicked. “It’s your playlist” he adds, clearly having grown a little tired of my constant nudging, every time a song I like comes on.

“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen” says Martin, now with a microphone in hand. He has to endure a considerable amount of heckling, as he runs through the starting 11’s, from the fans already in their seats around him. The way teams names are greeted with silence, the home teams names are received with either one of two responses, “booo” or “he’s alright”.

“I wish you all a fun afternoon of football” concludes Martin, before the music is cranked to new high, and Billy Idol fills the air.

There is quite an incline from the door leading from the changing rooms to the pitch. The slope having been covered in artificial green grass, the brown garden gate at the bottom has been pinned open, ready for the players.

As far as entrances are concerned, today’s might go down as one of the most dramatic. Once both teams are lined up and the mascots have been allocated their respective player. A musical mash up, the likes of which are normally reserved for the waltzers of your local travelling fair, stuns me into a near state of shock.

The DJ’s ensemble starts with the opening bars of Fanfare for the Common Man, conjuring images of interstellar travel and the moon landings, this is then interrupted by the war cry of Bruce Buffer “let’s get ready to rumble”. The piece finishes with the well known signature drum beat of Seven Nation Army, that plays out while the team line up, then shake hands.

“Come on you dockers” shouts a supporter from behind us. I’m delighted with the notion that we are just minutes away from seeing some football, after what feels like an eternity, but I cannot be affected by the look on Tom’s face, he is totally, 100% absolutely, lack of food dejected.

The crowd above us in the gallery, set their stall out pretty early, “come on three you’ve got another leg” barks one when a tackle results in a LFC player holding his ankle. Their vitriol is not only reserved for the away team, four minutes on the clock, a good ball over the top is met by an NFC forward, whose bad touch sees the ball go out of play. “He’s rubbish, get him off” screams someone. “They’re brutal” says Tom.

Although I can’t see the group above us, their very loud and brash comments, are reminiscent of the two grumpy men from the Muppets, times by about three or four, and a lot less Saturday tea time TV.

Despite the suggestions from the home crowd that the injured LFC was putting it on a bit, he is brought off with less than ten minutes played, he punches the side of the opaque plastic dugout, as he takes a seat.

If it’s not the away teams players or their own getting an earful, it’s the referee and his assistants One man cackles uncontrollably, because as he puts it the referee clearly doesn’t “know the rules”.

The sight of the much talked about passenger ship, had somewhat slipped my mind, until Tom asked “what times the ferry due?”. Between the noise of the odd squawking gull and enjoying the midfield masterclass NFC’s number 4 is putting on, breaking up play and winning back the ball at ease, all while sporting a MR T Mohawk, I had forgotten to check the timetable.

DSC_0107 NFC really should be ahead, they have been on top since kick off, and somehow one player from point blank range has managed to put his header wide. “Between the white posts” indicates a home fan behind us, who also a bit like the player, can’t understand how he missed.

“Relax, relax” shouts the LFC manager to his players, but they can’t, because as soon as they do, number 4 will barrel up alongside them, and pinch the ball. NFC have another attempt on goal, but this time it’s a wild shot, that as Tom points out, “almost hit that woman” minding her own business in the skate park behind the goal.

When Tom works out that the two women peering out the window behind us, watching the game, are the ones responsible for the smell of food, I think there may be some hope, he may get some food after all, and he wonders if they will “pass some through” for us.

I think Tom is right, I’m struggling to think of any occasion that would match it, but the salvos coming from high behind us, might be the “worst heckling” we’ve “ever” heard. Its non stop. On the quarter hour mark, the nearside linesman is the victim of a tirade when he doesn’t give a foul.

LFC number 11 is a little headless at times, giving away foul after foul in midfield, with no apparent consequences, the referees cards staying firmly in his pocket. “Mouthy” says Tom when he takes out another NFC player and is less than respectful, when the referee demands a word. “Don’t let him talk to you like that” instructs one of the incensed crowd behind us.

In the space of about five minutes, NFC have three attempts at goal, all are headers, two from almost inside the six yard box, that all go wide. “Whats going on?” one fan asks, “we should be out of this by now” he insists. The second and third chances sandwich much sarcastic applause for the referee from the stand, when he is again seen to having made the wrong decision, “off you come ref”.

Amongst a sea of much smaller vessels masts, the gigantic white and yellow ferry creeps slowly into view stage right, continuing steadily the throb of its massive engines can be clearly heard, until it comes to an elegant stop. This might just surpass the man with a dog in a pram as the most bizarre thing we’ve ever seen at a match.

It is fair to say the locals are less than happy when we witness our first big crunching tackle of 2018/19, “it was so horrible, that it was brilliant” snarls a blood thirsty Tom. It’s always the sound of them that turns my stomach, not the sight of it. The free kick that follows, nicks off the top of the LFC wall and almost creeps in under the bar, but is tipped over by the keeper.

“Go on boys get at them” demands a supporter.

The visitors have not had a shot, and frankly the game has been a bit poor, so I’m surprised when Tom describes it as “amazing”. I prod him to expand on his comment further and he explains it’s because, “it’s just so dirty”. Tackles and attempts at tackles are flying in from all angles, LFC in particular are losing their cool, they are so frequently without the ball, frustration is setting in. “It’s a compliment” says the NFC manager, the fact they keep on being fouled, means his team is keeping the ball better. Martin is not so zen like about it, and is livid at the treatment his players are getting.

Tom is also starting to lose it, talking to himself, “oh I could eat some chips” he moans. His most recent scouting mission came back with the fact that he can only see “crisps and Cuppa soups” for sale. I remind him how much he loves a mulligatawny or cream of tomato out of a sachet, but his reply is a bit snappy, “not in summer”. He resorts to eating some kind of cereal bar, from the bottom of his rucksack. It’s very flat, dark brown, and looks like compacted weirdness. Although its filling some kind of a void in him, it’s not going down easily. “Its so dry” he splutters.

The tit for tat nature of the match, means surely someone is going to get a red at some point. A robust home challenge leaves an LFC player down, much to the annoyance of the gallery, “oh come on”. The payback from an LFC player not long after, stops the game. “Straight red ref, send him off”, urges a home fan. No red is given, as you can imagine much to the annoyance of the home crowd, “you bottled it”, “its OK to kick out then ref?”

Only now getting up, the LFC player who was the recipient of the first tackle, which kick started the latest chain of events, has realised he’s not getting a free kick, and the fact that he is OK, after acting like he’d had his leg chopped off at the knee, someone suggests is a “miracle”.

The final quarter of the half, is verging on dismal. The LFC’s keepers propensity for a dodgy punch is entertaining, but that’s about it. One of the away bench keeps shouting to the players on the pitch something about “bits” which has Tom and I scratching our heads, but there is little to no action to talk of. Martin comments to the fans in front of us, “it’s going to be a long afternoon”.

IMG_20180915_152216Bang on half time LFC’s keeper very nearly gives up a goal, due to a shocking bit of kicking this time, not punching. A slice outside of the box, leaves his goal gaping, and a nearby NFC player nearly capitalises, but the man in goal clears it at the second attempt.

“What a boring game” points out someone above us bluntly, not the Robert Plant look alike who is making a b line for the bar, followed closely behind by Tom. Who does not resemble any member of the 70’s rock legends Led Zeppelin. Martin, who is always seemingly in constant motion, apologises for the “poor football” and that “its not been a great game”, like he is personally responsible.

“I saw cake, but it’s for the boardroom” reports Tom, only managing to source a bag of bacon flavoured crisps to quench his hunger. One person though who is having a far worse halftime than Tom, is the man who just as he got back to his seat behind the goal the NFC substitutes are warming up in, is squarely hit with a wayward shot, sending his freshly poured pint into a fine mist around him. The player responsible, sheepishly raises his hand to apologise.

NFC are back out first after the break, to the sounds of Blur, they huddle in their new half, and are offered a few shouts of encouragement from the crowd, “come on boys”.

The match restarts in almost complete silence, it’s not until the gallery get going again, that Fort Road comes back to life. LFC are the first to have a shot, but it’s dragged wide, and I’m pretty sure they have yet to have one on target.

One of the peering ladies from the first half, does so now while doing the washing up. She as most do, flinches in anticipation of a goal when NFC look like the latest cross into the box is going to be nodded in, only for the trusty clenched fist of the LFC keeper, to get to it first. The home team have very much picked up where they left off, the dominant force in the game, and their efforts continue to be appreciated, “come on boys”.

“Who needs oranges” says Tom quite rightly, who needs a quarter of a jaffa, the traditional match time snack, when someone is walking down the touchline, carrying a tray of tea, cakes and coffee for the home bench. Maybe the NFC player who just took a ball flush in the face, and for a moment looked like he had been knocked out, would like a bite of macaroon to revive him?

NFC are creating chances at will, most if not all are coming down the left wing, the side of the pitch closest to us, the full back has free rain. On one of the few occasions something happens on the right wing, they nearly score. The player turns his marker with ease in the box, latches on to the ball that had just been played along the ground beside him, but lashes his shot over.

In spite of all this, NFC have never really looked nailed on to score, and the locals are getting a little restless, “its been shocking, we’ve not been very good”.

It’s taken almost an hour, but LFC have finally registered their first shot on target, its not particularly vicious, but it’s a start. A direct free kick clears the wall, but it’s straight in to the arms of the keeper.

I’m getting desperate, the game is far from captivating, and I’m finding myself zoning out, staring at the red and yellow flag, whipping around, on the other side of the pitch, until on the chair in front of me, struggling in a dust filled cobweb, I am engrossed by the struggle of a large emerald green cricket, whose plight of ‘will he make it’, is far more interesting than the match.

Twenty minutes gone and LFC threaten slightly again, a cross is headed into the box from the back post, but no one is there to convert. “We’re gonna lose this 1 – 0” says a nearby home fan. His palpable football pessimism, an emotion all football fans, whoever you support, can relate to.

NFC go close just a couple of minutes later, “YES” shouts one man as the player shapes up to shoot, buts its wide. Two minutes after that, and LFC have their most dangerous moment of the match so far. Counterattacking on a NFC free kick deep in their half, they catch them out at the back. The forward prods the ball past the charging keeper, leaving him stranded, but the toe poke come shot dosen’t have enough on it to carry it in and is cleared.

“Come on wake up”

DSC_0323LFC’s bench are still going on about “bits” whatever “bits” are, buts its working, they are really growing into the game. Having set up with eleven men behind the ball, they have shown no real attack intent at all, but now slowly but surely are getting closer to the NFC goal. The crowd are concerned, “come on boys, what’s going on here?” one asks, “talk to each other” says another while one makes the point we are all thinking, “come on boys, we don’t wanna see extra time”.

Things are heating up, a shocker of an LFC challenge from behind after the winger had left the defender for dead, brings the whole NFC bench to its feet. “Sit down” shouts one of the away players. This triggers some back and forth between the LFC player and the nearby home fans, who exchanged a few choice words, the NFC supporter doesn’t think the offending player should even be on the pitch “anyway” after his earlier indiscretions.

The referee not happy with the all bench tirade that was aimed at him approaches them, the players and staff melt back under the protection of the dugout, leaving the manger alone, to receive his scalding.

Now I wouldn’t go as far as saying Tom is out of shape, he’s in much better nick than me, but when he points to the skate park where someone is traversing the obstacles on a BMX and informs me that he could “drop in on that vert”, having skateboarded for “seven years” I have to take that with a considerable pinch of salt.

It’s an end to end ish game, if a game can be such a thing, one of the gallery is starting to go hoarse and one fan is a tad premature, when he lets out an excited “yes” as a player lets loose a snapshot, that ends up in the side netting. LFC are having the odd foray, on one occasion one of their players in yellow and blue punches the floor in disappointment when he loses the ball in the box, but his manager is still happy regardless, “love that”.

Five minutes to go, extra time feels inevitable, one home fan will settle for anything to stop it going on longer than ninety minutes, “an own goal would do”. NFC have another pot shot, zipping just inside the foot of the post, but its held. LFC commit another foul, but again it goes unpunished, “did you leave your cards at home?” one supporter asks.

“Are you having a laugh?” shouts the LFC manager, when NFC are awarded a foul right on the edge of their box, the players can’t believe it either, hands are firmly attached to the top of their heads in amazement. The NFC players quickly line up the free kick, and there is extra incentive for one of them from the crowd, “your girlfriends says if you don’t win, she’s coming home with me”.

I’m not sure we will see a sweeter hit free kick all season. Expertly hit from such close range, its up and over the wall and right into the top right hand corner in a blink of an eye. “Goal” mumbles one fan, before it was even in the back of the net. The keepers makes all the actions of someone trying to get towards it, but I’m sure in his heart of hearts, he knew he wouldn’t reach it, and was only doing it for appearance sake.

Dashing towards the bench, arms out to his side Vincenzo Montella style, he stops briefly to leap and punch the air, before being mobbed and as it has been all day, music plays its part too, a little bit of House of Pain accompanies the celebrations.

“No one” the NFC fan next to us emphasise, “no one is getting a big head here” he says when he sees how flabbergasted Tom is, at the fact the goal score is being subbed off immediately after scoring. “Cut them down at the knees” he adds, no big time charlies at NFC.

Both teams have a late flurry in the final minutes, the goal having relieved some tension, and both teams are playing with a lot more freedom. Both in quick succession craft a couple of attempts at goal, more maybe than either had managed combined, in the previous ninety minutes. “We can press now” instructs the LFC manager, who is allowing his team off the leash, but it might be a bit late. NFC have a shot, but its straight at the keeper, and then the LFC pressure nearly pays off, when NFC who are trying to play keep ball at the back, are harried out of possession. “We’re not good enough for that” one fan reminds them.

“Don’t fart around” snarls an NFC supporter when an LFC free kick is fumbled by the NFC keeper, as LFC register what I think is maybe their only second or third shout on target, with the game just minutes away from ending.

It comes as no great surprise with LFC pushing so many more men forward, they become susceptible to the outnumbered at the back. NFC break and it’s the well stuck out foot of the LFC keeper, that stops NFC doubling their lead. He’s soon called back into action, with a much more athletic save this time, pushing the ball wide after a fierce shot. “Good save keeper” says a home fan no less, proving they have a softer side too.

I must admit that Final Countdown by Europe is far from one of my favourite songs, and it certainly is not one that would ever be on one of my playlists, buts its choice as music on the final whistle, feels in keeping with the day so far.

DSC_0415Thankfully the high pitched vocals are not on for long, the music is soon off, the stand is empty of its lets say unwaveringly honest patrons and all we can hear is the quiet chatter from both teams huddles. “Unlucky common” says the single voice of an older man, who then offers up an imaginary “noose for the ref”. The programme seller, now on collecting the corner flags duty, pretends to yawn, stretching his arms above his head, “just woke up after that ninety minutes”.

Fort Road is a bit rough around the edges, you wont be wanting for cones and red tape, but as Martin put it, its a “work in progress” he also told us that it’s made him “skint” so he might not be the one to finish it, nevertheless its another tick in the box, for a warm welcome, hardworking volunteers and a passionate owner, who is doing everything he can to keep it ticking along.

A huge black dog in the stand, supporters offering players cigarettes, the reply of the player maybe one of the best things I heard all day, ” no I’m an athlete”, a chairman who works behind the bar, shakes the hand of every player as they walk out, who jokingly asked if he “could be a mascot” trying to hold the hands of the confused players. Being out with Tom and conversations about “getting into the habit of eating early” and the surprise when I say I might join him for a snack, “oh you’re eating”

It really is good to be back.

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